Christopher Bernard reviews Mark Morris Dance Troupe’s Pepperland

IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS

Pepperland

Mark Morris Dance Group

Zellerbach Hall

Berkeley, California

A review by Christopher Bernard


Mark Morris Dance Group performing Pepperland. (Credit: Mat Hayward.)

Eat your heart out, atheists: there is a god, and his name is Mark Morris.

To prove his divinity once again (though what god needs to prove his divinity? I should say: to display it to us hapless mortals), he brought his company of angels, fallen and otherwise, to Berkeley over the last weekend in September to ravish mere humanity with an hour-long dance based on one of the most inspired and exuberant and original and humane of all albums of popular music—the Beatles’ seminal (for once, the word is apt) contribution to what few virtues we have left in our world today: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It is almost embarrassing to salute so fulsomely a work of such wit, humor, graciousness, humanity, and eternal youthfulness. It stands uneasily on its pedestal, threatening at any moment to throw itself onto a 60’s dancefloor and show the rest of us how it is actually done.
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Poetry from Christopher Bernard

Spring Symphony

 

By Christopher Bernard

 

 

Spring:            Oh! Hear my call, oh world, my home!

 

The World:      We hear your call! The traveler’s home!

 

O Spring, rejoice us now!

 

The winter’s brutal winds have gone:

The storm

Has wrecked

Its last

Redoubt.

 

The birds are flying from the south.

They perch gravely on the fence;

Appraising bush and tree, they scout

A place to nest far from the cat

That watches from the windowsill.

 

Through the crust of snow and ice

That kept asleep her summer dream,

Earth’s eyes awake

As the sun perks up the daffodil

And turns the eyes of all to him

Until the universe itself

Beyond even his sovereignty

Breaks into music by a German old

In love with his Clara, his life, his earth

For a season; till

The trees uproot,

And the canyons wake

From their cold trance,

And the bears give birth,

And the mountains dance.

 

Spring:            Now, drunk on joy, let all things dance!

Oh, drunk on joy, let all things dance!

 

The World:      Till tizzygiddygiddydizzyfizzytizzytipsy we be,

All around

We fall down!

 

Spring:            And drunk on joy, now all things dance,

(So drunk on joy, how all things dance!)

 

The World:                 Till everybody

Finds this treasure:

Love, like life,

Is pain and pleasure.

 

Spring:            Drunk on joy, you’re drunk on joy!

 

The World:                 No, you’re drunk

As a love-lorn boy!

 

Spring:                        For Spring is love!

 

The World:                 And love is spring!

 

Spring:                        Dance if you know this!

 

The World:                  (If you don’t know, sing!)

 

Spring:            Drunk on joy, let’s all dance!

 

The World:     Oh drunk on joy, let’s all dance!

 

Spring:                        So drunk on joy –

 

The World:                  Oh, drunk on joy –

 

Still drunk on joy . . . !

 

(Pause.)

 

Spring:            Oh! Hear my call, oh world, my home!

 

The World:      We hear your call! The traveler’s home!

 

All:                  O Spring, rejoice us now!

 

_____

 

Christopher Bernard is author of two book-length collections of poetry, The Rose Shipwreck and Chien Lunatique, and is co-editor and poetry editor for the webzine Caveat Lector. His third novel, Spectres (originally serialized in Synchronized Chaos as “AMOR i KAOS”), will appear later this year, from Regent Press.

 

Christopher Bernard’s last chapter of Amor I Kaos

Christopher Bernard’s Novel “AMOR i KAOS”: Final Installment

 

A pool of darkness. To himself and his neighbors. A weeping willow above it, dragging its whip-like branches across the surface in the afternoon breeze. The little stone springhouse at the edge of the woods where they kept the cream sodas, the Oranginas, the cokes. The light gurgling of the spring over the rocks as it entered the pool. The olive green scum off toward the far side, where the tall reeds started in a dark green screen. The sound of a dragonfly darting past his ear, then the sight of it hovering over the pool, its whirring transparent wings, its delicately pulsing body as thin as a small, black finger; then it darts off.

The sense that a world of busyness is happening all around him, a hidden universe of intense, purposeful activity, from the grasses to the leaves, from the worms boring through the mud to the beetles and flies, to the lizards and snakes, to the squirrels, to the birds flashing in and out of the trees, to the little shifts of air, zephyrs, breezes, to the wind and the sky, to the clouds, the clouds, the clouds, those little worlds of chaos, to the sun, the unseen moon, the silent mob of stars behind the blank, opaque blue—in the apparent stillness, an endless busyness, motion endlessly rich, constant birth, constant renewal, an infinity of novel and strange and oddly beautiful forms, a panorama, a spectacle of beings he was, in effect, and maybe even in fact, blessed with witnessing and living among. A formation of fighters thunders across the sky.

One day an ant decides that all of creation has been made for it and it alone—from its creation myth in a clump of eggs in the corner of a damp tree stump, its growth, scrambling over its myriads of cousins, into maturity, its dramatic adventures scurrying over the forest floor, its toilsome existence dragging pieces of dead leaves and beetle husks into the darkness of its anthill, and its heroic destiny as an ant-angel squeaking hosannas to an ant-god in a heaven full of fellow insects—and it toils at growing its anthill and ant society to ever greater heights and to ever greater glory, to prove its grand dreams were justified, that nothing is too good for it or for its fellow ants, and that the rest of nature exists to support it, and will be, if need be, sacrificed to its interests, its survival, pleasures, whims. That ant, in its little soul and clever brain, has even invented a weapon that, implausibly enough, could destroy not only its own anthill, and all other anthills in the world, in one fell swoop, but the entire forest, the county, state, nation—life on earth itself. Such a clever ant! Such a mighty ant! And it might do that one day, just to show it can. It’s just that smart, and on a bad day, just that mad.

—That ant, he said, is me.

She said nothing for a very long time.

xxxxx

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Christopher Bernard’s Amor I Kaos: Eighth Novel Installment

Christopher Bernard’s novel “AMOR i KAOS”: Eighth Installment. (Search for earlier chapters by searching his name or the novel title on our site!)

 

But it doesn’t anymore. (Doesn’t what? she asked.) Happen as it used to. I remember you smiling at me. I remember me smiling at you. (I can’t say I remember either of those things. Or if they happened, they were pure reflexes. They were social smiles, meant to ward off hostility, to express harmlessness, peaceful intentions. They had no expressive meaning or intention whatsoever.) That isn’t what I remember. (You can’t trust memory. It lies.) Not always and not everywhere. (Where emotions are involved, almost always.) Then how am I to be so sure that what you say you remember is accurate either? If I have to choose between your memory and mine, thanks, but I think I’ll choose mine. First of all, because it’s more beautiful. (To you.) True: more beautiful to me. (And I choose mine because it seems more likely to be true.) No, because it’s meaner, and you think the meaner the thought, the more honest, the truer. Sometimes I’m afraid of you, you have a cruel streak, or maybe it’s just anger, and you’re looking for a reason, any reason, to fight. (You’re wrong. I don’t want to fight you, you want to fight me, everything you say is meant to provoke me. Everything you say is an attack. All you want to do is win.) No, no, no, I don’t accept your terms for this debate. (You’re trying to impose your meaning on me. I won’t have it!) I’m not trying to impose anything on you, I’m just trying to express what I feel and understand. (You won’t let this go, you’re being insistent and disrespectful.) No, I’m just not letting you win, I’m standing up to you and not letting you bully me. (You don’t hear what I’m saying! Stop this!) Stop what? Stop speaking? I can’t, I won’t. Don’t order me. (Don’t order me! You’re being selfish and childish in trying to impose your ideas and feelings on me.) I am not, that’s not what this is about. Why are we fighting? I don’t understand this, I don’t understand you. Why are you behaving like this? (What about the word stop do you not understand? You’re being violent in your insistence. I want no more communication from you. I will not listen. If you communicate with me again I will seek recourse to stronger action.)

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Christopher Bernard reviews Ava/Ada at Zellerbach Hall

ARDOR

 

A review by Christopher Bernard

 

Ava/Ada

Manual Cinema

Zellerbach Playhouse

March 16–18, 2018

 

Manual Cinema performs Ada/Ava Friday–Sunday, March 16–18, 2018 in the Zellerbach Playhouse. (Photo credit: Yi Zhao)

Manual Cinema performs Ada/Ava Friday–Sunday, March 16–18, 2018 in the Zellerbach Playhouse. (Photo credit: Yi Zhao)

 

 

Chicago’s audacious theater company Manual Cinema has brought its hour of magic to Berkeley just past the ides of March this year, and if you have a theatrical bone in your body, you owe it to yourself to hie thee thither posthaste ere its pixie dust evaporates away into the memories of its enthusiasts.

The form Manual Cinema has created is as simple as it is imaginative: a hybrid of simple animation, Balinese shadow puppet play and live performance (including sound effects and music), using two screens and four overhead projectors, much like those many of us have all suffered through in high school classrooms and musty lecture halls, but with imagination and heart attached, like the balloon that haunts the show throughout.

The live performances make each performance unique and provide the same tension one feels watching a high-wire act: of course they won’t fall, but what if they do?

The story is of an admirable simplicity and originality: two ageing sisters, Ada and Ava—identical twins, as an array of old-fashioned oval-framed silhouettes adorning the walls of their home let us know in no uncertain terms—keep a lighthouse on a stormy coast, and one of them dies (no spoiler here, as the death occurs in the very opening).

The remaining sister has not only lost her oldest and closest companion, but in a sense has also lost her other self, and the rest of the story is what happens to her in her long journey to try to rejoin her sister, through memories of their growing up together, dream and nightmare, an unfinished chess game, and the haunting presence of a tall pier mirror that taunts the surviving sister with the image of her dead twin, which is, of course, her own.

We are told the story in a series of acetate and paper projections, thrown against a small screen at the back of the stage, as the performers work the models in full view of the audience onstage, with their backs to us.

The performers portraying the two sisters act out their scenes in front of that first screen. The shadows on the screen are then thrown onto a considerably larger one hanging high above the stage, and in mirror-reverse from the action seen on the first. That second screen, combining the projected images into one commanding image is what rivets the audience’s attention from first to last, though one can, at any moment, glance down to watch the “kitchen” where the febrile stew is being concocted.

The strongly convincing performers included Vanessa Valliere as Ada and Kara Davidson as Ava, as well as puppeteers Dru Dir (who directed and first explored the ideas that eventuated in the show), Sam Deutsch and Charlotte Long. The musicians, whose music subtly shaped the show’s emotional cast, were Michael Hilger, Kyle Verger and Quinn Tsan, who also performed the colorful and clever sound effects.

One thing about the names: one might be forgiven for thinking of the heroine of Vladimir Nabokov’s longest novel for “Ada,” or Ava Gardner for her twin. One might also think of “avian” for Ava, as in at least one scene, a bird appears above Ava’s grave. And of course, there are only two letters to add or change to go from either Ava or Ada to “alma,” the soul.

The show’s only weakness is its conclusion, where the authors are clearly unable to figure out how to end their story. The story’s logic sternly leads in one direction only, but they can’t quite muster the courage to go there, and so equivocate, sweetly enough if not entirely convincingly. But forgivably.

To say too much would be to spoil a show of such fine delicacy of spirit and subtle strength. Leave it at this: stormy nights and threatening seas, beautiful dreams and fearful nightmares, gaiety and deviltry, mischievous teapots and nagging clocks (one of them advertising the “Menaechmi Bros.”—from the Roman Plautus’s comedy about twins), fights between the sisters and a near drowning, a visit to a carnival and a visit to the regions of death, chess games and halls of mirrors, a lost balloon and a forever kept shell, skeletons and graveyards and spiral staircases, and the looming light of the lighthouse, twisting like an owl’s eye and forever threatening to go out for good, and the mystery of who one is, and the mystery of death, and the mystery of reconciling ourselves to the mysteries of life.

_____

 

Christopher Bernard is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector. His novel Voyage to a Phantom City came out in 2016; his second collection of poetry, Chien Lunatique, came out in 2017. His new novel (currently being serialized in Synchronized Chaos) will appear later this year.

 

 

Christopher Bernard’s novel installment – Amor I Kaos

Christopher Bernard’s “AMOR i KAOS”: Seventh Installment

 

It could be a lifetime. Between the screed and the admonition, the command and the oath. Your followers lined up like soldiers on a ridge gazing down at the ignorant city. The horses neighing as they slip on rocks wet with dew. The dawn treacherously beautiful and cool, as if carrying, clutched in its hand, the message that will never reach them. Stop. Do not attack. We have surrendered, the war is over. And they descend, silent, to a pointless destruction. It could be like that. Or it might be briefer, a sojourn over a weekend or no longer than a summer of one’s youth. Remember that? It feels like yesterday. But it was a lifetime ago. It might be a gentler doom, more quiet, discreet, causing damage to only two people, bruised and aching and left for dead on the indifferent battlefield of love, cruelest of tyrants, your gauntlets bloody, your banners torn and fluttering in the dust-filled wind.

 

xxxxx

 

He closed the book and gazed at her gravely.

—I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, she said. You hopeless romantic!

His mouth smiled. Which looked strange since his eyes were so bleak.

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Christopher Bernard reviews Mugwumpin’s new production, In Event of Moon Disaster (at Z Below, San Francisco)

 

Lunar-Process-Modules-88-web

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isa Musni in Mugwumpin’s “Moon Disaster.”  Photo by Battista Remati.

 

SWEET LUNACY

 

 

In Event of Moon Disaster

Mugwumpin

At Z Below

San Francisco

Through January 28, 2018

 

A review by Christopher Bernard

 

The latest thought-provoking work by Mugwumpin, the award-winning theatrical group based in San Francisco, is inspired by one of the most dramatic what-if moments of the 1960s—a decade in no need of more drama than it was already cursed with. What if humanity’s first journey to a world beyond earth had ended tragically? What if Apollo XI’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had never made it home from the surface of the moon in that fateful summer of 1969?

Anyone alive at the time, who was both conscious and near a radio or TV, knew that such a disaster was an entirely realistic possibility. It took little imagination to conceive of a plethora of accidents, miscalculations, technical glitches, system bugs, slip-ups, oversights, results of ignorance, and even acts of sabotage, that would have made the moon landing a disaster of historic proportions, and one that would have been seen by much of mankind at exactly the same time.

(Ahem. I realize there are still some who believe that the moon landing was a hoax; if you are reading this, you may leave now. Otherwise, you may find the following prose causes fits, seizures, repressed memories, and a gagging sensation that makes you stop breathing altogether.)

It wasn’t generally known, until revealed some thirty years afterward, that a speech had been written (by William Safire, later a well-known conservative columnist, public intellectual and talking head) for the president to give in case, for whatever reason, the first moon landing ended in catastrophe. The speech (the original of which is in the National Archives) has been published; indeed, a facsimile copy of the typescript, including chilling ancillary material, is included with the performance’s program.

And based on ideas generated by this gruesome “perhaps,” Mugwumpin has created one of its ever-intriguing “devised theater” pieces, based on two years of research and group work, script writing, improvisation, exploration in words, dance, music, costume, and video projection. The often fascinating, if not entirely satisfactory, results are on display at Z Below (at Project Artaud) in San Francisco. It is something that anyone curious about the vanguard of contemporary theater owes it to themselves to see.

As usual with Mugwumpin, the audience (limited to 35 members per performance) is required to perform some participatory antics, though nothing as elaborate as in some of Mugwumpin’s most spectacularly successful pieces (such as that wondrous theatrical machine and fantasy generator, performed in the ghostly labyrinth of San Francisco’s Old Mint, “Future Motive Power,” which first introduced to me to this company’s learned, deeply thoughtful, audaciously inventive, and lucidly ludic imagination).

Upon receiving your ticket, you are handed a small plastic ball, a little moon of your own, to pocket like your own satellite, which you are welcome to drop in a bucket, leave by your seat, flick at a performer if you’re feeling especially ludic, or take home with you afterwards (as I did; it is now being played with, as any moon should be, by our youngest cat).

The performance begins in the lobby, where the performers, most of whom appear in (to use my companion’s term) space drag, based on a kind of “retro-futurism”—a return to the starry-eyed optimism of the space program of that rapidly vanishing era— launch our journey to the far-side of a never-to-be-completely-known moon through video and computer projections of a fantasy astronaut crew, half male, half female (which is only fair, though to this day there are far fewer female than male astronauts), caught in a sci-fi spacetime warp where disaster’s shadow looms. We are all astronauts now: the lobby is our decompressive airlock before we are allowed out-in to the inner-outer space of the liminal universe of their/our imagination.

And in, out, around, and away we go.

(One of the show’s most interesting aspects needs to be mentioned here: it’s play throughout on such words and concepts, as used in the world-outside-the-world that is the universe outside earth, as “up,” “down,” “in,” “out,” “around,” “on,” “free,” “lost” (as in “Am I free? Or am I lost? Is there a difference?”) There is even an informative lecture on how space professionals refer to visiting another planet: for example, one goes “in” to the moon when landing upon it, “out” from it when leaving it, “around” it when orbiting it. “Up,” “down,” “above,” “below,” even “right” and “left,” are, one imagines, too relative to the speaker’s physical position in the weightlessness of space to have much meaning. At some point, no doubt, we will have to create an arbitrary but universally agreed on standard of coordinates for the universe as a whole, just as we have for earth, so we can decide, and understand, where we are.)

Once inside the small “black box” theater at Z Below, we were lined up on a narrow stage-like margin, a bit as in a very long police lineup, and watched, in the staging area below, a dance of the astronauts, in orbits within orbits, depicting the moon orbiting the earth, and the earth orbiting the sun, to quiet music performed by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, who provides much of the show’s music and also plays the embodiment of the myth and magic, the witch, of the moon.

Soon after, a mob of small stools was dragged into the central area and we were invited to settle ourselves on them, helter-skelter, and the rest of the performance was performed, for the most part, on the narrow surround stage and projected against the walls around us.

The show intertwines several story lines. One is of two astronauts on the moon, who babble to each other in the hapless doublespeak of technological abstraction so advanced as to seem to have no meaning at all (the astronauts sometimes sound like robots trying to sound like human beings, which may be a theatrical mistake, as it deprives them of some of the humanity we as an audience need to be feel to fully identify with them). The two astronauts lose communication with earth and, as they face the likelihood of catastrophe, provide the show’s central drama. This story line is enriched by the most imaginative uses of theatrical space in the show, in particular, in the latter half, a spectral use of scrim and distantly lit heads of the astronauts in their peculiarly vulnerable-looking helmets against a wall of absolute darkness.

Another story is about Mimi, a young Latina who loves science and wants to become an astronaut, but also has a social conscience, and must decide which to follow: her deepest heart’s desire to explore space, or another desire, hardly less deep, to improve the lives of her people; of all people, suffering, fraught and foolish humanity, on earth.

Yet another story is of the Moon herself and her appearances throughout human history as a source of myth, magic, and romance; a nightly visible goddess who is made known at first only as song, dance, and story, finally to appear as a voiceless dancer with an immense balloon-like head, a figure of both gentle humor and deep mystery.

What results is a fascinating theatrical fantasy that only occasionally gets snagged in new-agey shallows and preachiness (though it has the good sense to poke fun at its inevitable californitis). Though it pays some respect to the tragic implications of astronauts losing their lives on their missions, it does not explore those implications deeply enough to be altogether convincing, and so the attempts at optimism in the piece ring a bit hollow and vaguely nihilistic (another symptom of californitis: “Well, yes, everybody dies in the end, boohoo, but chin up: we can have a great time while waiting!”) There is a smiley-face whimsy playing with the tragic fate of mankind that sometimes feels forced. The show also sometimes seems to work at cross-purposes with itself, as if its creators could not in the end decide exactly what they wanted the show to be, and tried to do too many things at the same time, some of them mutually undermining. (A prime example: the tragic end of the two astronauts is not adequately combined with the show’s fundamental optimism and its insistence on a happy ending, and so the ending feels unconvincing.)

The show is also a bit too long: it has effectively ended as the female astronaut, fading away in an over-sized video projection while either making her last transmission to earth or talking to herself to give herself courage after her communication link has died, takes courage to “step . . .  on . . . step . . . on . . . step . . . on.” But the show’s creators, possibly because of over-commitment to the show’s ternary concept, make a false step in continuing for another ten minutes of a contrived cheerfulness that could well be lost.

Having said that, this imaginative and stimulating show’s many virtues provide an experience that is worth far more than the modest cost of admission. But make sure you bring a companion, as you will have much to talk about afterwards. Mugwumpin remains true to its gifts and its mission: of delving, above all, into questions. They are a gift to anyone who goes to theater for the spark of thought as much as for the heart’s fire.

The talented cast included, besides Stuart, Stephanie DeMott, Soren Santos, Nayeli Rodriguez, Don Wood, and Isa Musni (as the Moon). Wolfgang Wachalovsky and Darl Andrew Packard created the video projections. Natalie Greene, the company’s gifted new artistic director, directed.

_____

Christopher Bernard is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector. He is also a novelist (Voyage to a Phantom City and “AMOR i KAOS,” which is being run as a serial in Synchronized Chaos) and poet (Chien Lunatique and The Rose Shipwreck).